Review: Jake Gyllenhaal gets next-level creepy in great, disturbing ‘Nightcrawler’

Dan Gilroy's been at this for a while now. His first produced screenplay was the largely-forgotten “Freejack,” a science-fiction action movie starring Emilio Estevez, Mick Jagger, and a fresh-off-his-Oscar-win Anthony Hopkins in 1992. The other main co-star in the film was Rene Russo, who ended up married to Gilroy after that film, and now, a full 22 years later, she's co-starring in “Nightcrawler,” which is Gilroy's move from being a writer to being a writer-director.

If this is any indication of what he can do when he's in full control, then let the era of Dan Gilroy commence.

Disturbing and dark, “Nightcrawler” is many things. It is a remarkable LA movie, something I would not say lightly. I have a lot of problems watching movies that are “about” LA, just like I have a lot of problems watching movies about making movies. I have trouble separating what I know from what I'm watching. It is also a pretty spot on savaging of news media and what runs the business.

In addition, it's a showcase for what may well be the best performance Jake Gyllenhaal has given so far. It was interesting watching this in the same theater where I saw “Prisoners” last year, because just setting those two films side by side and considering them, it's apparent just how strong an actor he is these days. He seems to build his characters from the outside in, transforming himself almost completely in the details of how he moves, how he carries his weight, how he looks. In “Nightcrawler,” he looks sick, like he's been stretched too tight and he's about to tear, and that would seem to be an apt description of his inner weather in the film as well.

As the film opens, Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is adrift. He is stealing copper wire to live. He's a scavenger, basically, but he's bright and he's a quick study and he's curious about things, and when he stumbles onto an accident and watches a camera crew led by a noxious wise-ass (Bill Paxton) shoot the victim and the burning car, he has an epiphany. He asks Paxton who he works for, and learns that Paxton's a freelancer, someone who shoots the video, then sells it to the local news. He is constantly roaming, listening to police scanners, trying to get to the scene before any one else. Bloom's hooked immediately. Something about the idea seems to speak to him on a chemical level.

He buys a cheap video camera and a cheap scanner and he starts to try to do it himself, and sure enough, once he starts to do it, he seems to have a knack for it. He establishes a business relationship with the graveyard shift news director for a local station, selling her footage for the morning news. Nina (Russo) is cynical to begin with, only interested in blood and guts, and once Bloom's got the scent, he seems to have an unnerving ability to get right up in the gore.

There's a good chunk of the film that's simply about how Bloom begins to learn to navigate this nighttime world of murder and car accidents and stabbings and fires. He hires a homeless guy named Rick (played by Riz Ahmed, who was so great in “Four Lions”) to be his ride-along “intern,” to listen to the scanner and man the GPS as Bloom drives, and little by little, the two of them start to get really good.

Telling you any more than that would be criminal. Suffice it to say that those who gaze into the abyss better be worried about what's looking back. That almost makes it sound like Gilroy's made a morality play, but “Nightcrawler” is darker and weirder than that, more interested in studying Bloom, who is a fascinating character as written and as played. One of the things I really loved about the film is the photography by the amazing Robert Elswit. As Bloom gets better and better at his job, he starts to talk about composition and framing and he starts to care about how his footage looks, and Elswit's eye is a big part of what makes the film work. It is an aggressively beautiful film, and easily the best visual representation of Los Angeles at night since Michael Mann's “Collateral.” There is a particular sort of sodium yellow that the film is drenched in, and it made me feel like I was standing on Hollywood Boulevard at 2:30 in the morning. I could smell the city. Elswit practically gives a performance in the film, his work is so essential to why it works.

The film plays with tension beautifully, and there are a few set pieces that I think are all-timers. One involves a home in the hills, and the other involves a Chinese restaurant, and both of them are exceptional in the way they manage to wrap theme and character and suspense together. There's not an ounce of fat on the film. It gets in, it tells the story as well as it possibly can, and it cuts out perfectly. This is ultimately a story about the strange dance that evolves between Nina and Bloom, and it's the best role Russo's had in years. His brother, Tony Gilroy, made his directorial debut with “Michael Clayton,” and in both cases, these guys are making smart, grown-up movies that have these haunting qualities that make them special. I think “Nightcrawler” is something special, uncompromising, and I'm excited to see how other people feel when they slip into the violent, seedy, scary world it creates.

“Nightcrawler” opens October 31, 2014.